The contentious battle over immigration reform continues in Washington while hundreds of refugees and immigrants from Afghanistan, Tibet, Asia and Latin America settle in the Capital Region.
This latest wave of refugees and immigrants — both legal and illegal — is changing the face of the region, putting new demands on schools and health care. At the same time, new immigrants are becoming members of the middle class and helping to offset the decline in the upstate population.
Hundreds of Guyanese have settled in Schenectady, immigrants from the former Soviet Union bloc live in neighborhoods in Cohoes, and this summer another wave of refugees was expected to settle in Albany from Tibet.
According to a recent Fiscal Policy Institute report, immigrants make up 21 percent of the state population. And while they represent only 5 percent of the upstate population, they make up 20 percent of university professors, 35 percent of physicians and surgeons and 20 percent of computer software engineers.
It’s difficult to say exactly how many immigrants live in the Capital Region and even more difficult to determine their countries of origin. Experts say the numbers are sketchy. The last census was done in 2000 and today much of the information about immigration comes from the Department of Homeland Security and details are lacking, according to Robert Scardamalia at the State Data Center of the Department of Economic Development.
Yet one thing is crystal clear.
The Capital Region has a dramatically more diversified population than in 1990 with thousands more Latin Americans and Asians.
According to the 2006 American Community Survey, the Hispanic population in four counties — Albany, Rensselaer, Saratoga, Schenectady — has increased by 116 percent in 16 years (from 1990 to 2006).
In 1990, there were an estimated 11,615 Hispanics in the Capital Region out of a total population of 777,584.
By 2006, this number jumped to 25,161 while the total population across the Capital Region had climbed to 818,761.
“The Hispanic population still only represents 3.1 percent of the total population in the Capital Region in 2006 compared to New York state with 16.3 percent and nationally 14.8 percent,” said Rocco A. Ferraro, executive director of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.
It’s important to remember that it started with a small base, he said.
Once a person or a family establishes a residence and starts to feel comfortable, other family members follow. “This is what we see in Schenectady with the Guyanese population. It’s a microcosm with what happens with other ethnic groups.”
The Asian population in the Capital Region has increased about 150 percent from 1990 to 2006. The Capital Region had a small base of about 10,388 Asians in 1990, according to the American Community Survey. By 2006, it was 25,983 Asians.
For New York state as a whole, the Asian population increased by 91 percent in the same time period; for the nation, the increase was 80 percent.
“We doubled our rate of increase, which is greater than the state of New York or the U.S.,” Ferraro said.
Another spike can be found in the number of people who identify themselves as “other than white or a person with two more races.” In 1990, about 5,150 people put themselves in this category. By 2006, it had increased to 26,600.
That’s a 416 percent increase for the region, much higher than for the state as a whole, or the country.
“If we look at the Capital Region, this is up more than 400 percent and it’s an indication that there is more diversity that has occurred here in the Capital Region since 1990 than the rest of New York state and the U.S. as a whole,” Ferraro said.
Another part of the region’s demographic story is that the number of whites has dropped by 2.3 percent from 723,539 in 1990 to 707,801 in 2006.
“We are seeing a significant increase in racial groups other than whites in the Capital Region, and there is much more diversity,” said Ferraro at the Capital District Regional Planning Commission.
Prior to 1990, the Capital Region was vastly underrepresented by different racial groups or those of Latin American heritage. “It was a mild surprise to me,” said Ferraro. “I would have expected a little bit more of a diversified ratio.”
Most people who relocate to the U.S. choose larger cities, such as New York City, and the Capital Region doesn’t initially attract them. But once immigrants have been settled in the country for one to five years, they often relocate to another region.
IRS records indicate that between 2001 and 2006 most of the people who moved into this area came from Queens County and Kings County, followed by Bronx and Suffolk counties, areas which are notably more racially diverse.
Asians, Latin Americans and others are having a positive impact on the Capital Region. “They fill jobs, help the labor force, especially with an aging population. It’s important we bring them in,” said Ferraro.
influx of refugees
From the Albany field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, director Molly Short helps resettle many refugees and helps them find jobs.
And it’s surprising to find out where they come from: Tibet and Afghanistan, and a pocket of Bhutanese who had been living in eastern Nepal. Like other immigrants who came before them, more refugees are coming to the Capital Region fleeing violence or religious persecution in their native countries.
When it first opened in 2005, the Albany field office of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants helped 40 refugees. In 2006, the number more than doubled to 88 refugees; in 2007, it was 200; and this year 250 refugees are expected to arrive in Albany.
“I would say that Albany has a healthy mix,” said Short. “There is an older population of Afghanistans, Liberians, Burmans and Russians from the former Soviet Union.”
The past couple of years has seen an increase in new immigrants from Iraq as well as refugees from central Africa and Bhutanese from Nepal. Many are people forced out of their home countries for refugee camps in other countries, arriving in the United States with just the clothes on their backs, Short said.
Each year the U.S. resettles a limited number of refugees, defined as someone who has fled his country or origin because of past persecution or fear of persecution based on race, religion or nationality. If the person is already in the U.S., he may apply for the U.S. asylum program.
The definition of a refugee does not include people who have left their homes only to seek a more prosperous life. Such people are commonly referred to as economic migrants.
In 2007 the largest number of Capital Region refugees — 93 — arrived from Burma; 17 came from Afghanistan; 17 from Democratic Republic of Congo, 14 from Eritrea and 13 from Rwanda.
Short said it’s hard for many to adjust to a new way of life, and the lack of English speaking and reading skills makes it difficult for newcomers to get to know people or find a job.
The Fiscal Policy Institute’s report from November 2007 says immigrants — both legal and illegal — account for approximately one-fourth of the state’s total economic output. The study also found that, contrary to what many people think, most of the immigrants speak English.
Some 340,000 immigrants live in the upstate region and make up about 5 percent of the population, according to the study. Compared to other regions of the state, immigrants’ share of both population and earnings upstate are relatively modest.
The largest occupational category for immigrants in upstate New York is college and university teachers. The 10,000 immigrants working in this field make up one of out of every five post-secondary teachers in the region.
The top four countries of origin for immigrants to upstate New York are, in order, Canada, India, Germany and Mexico.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006 Community Surveys, about 8 percent of Schenectady County’s 150,000 residents were foreign born. About 4 percent of the population was Hispanic or Latino.
In Albany County, about 7 percent of the population was foreign born, from a total 2006 population of 298,000, according to the Census.
In Saratoga County, 4 percent of the population was foreign born; in Rensselaer County, 5 percent was foreign born.